A minor traffic fine in California can escalate quickly to hundreds of dollars. For low-income drivers, that can mean license suspensions and even jail time for failing to pay or driving without a valid license, a practice the U.S. Department of Justice has warned states against.
The California Legislature enacted a temporary amnesty program in October 2015, to help low-income drivers reduce their fines and get their licenses reinstated. During the first 15 months that the program was in place, it helped at least 205,000 Californians resolve their delinquent accounts. About 192,000 people had their licenses reinstated during that time.
That program expired this week. But proposed legislation would provide longer-term relief.
“The amnesty program grew out of recognition by the Legislature that license suspensions for failure to pay were hurting California families,” said Elisa Della-Piana, the legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which is based in San Francisco. “It helped a certain number of people, but it only reduced debt for people who had tickets due before January 2013, and it didn’t stop new suspensions.”
When the amnesty program started in 2015, about 612,000 California drivers had a suspended license because of failure to appear or failure to pay, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. During the life of the amnesty program that number dropped to about 488,000 drivers.
State Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, who helped implement the amnesty program, introduced a measure in January that would prohibit courts from automatically suspending a driver’s license for failure to pay and it would force judges to consider a person’s ability to pay before assessing fines and fees.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and other advocacy groups support the bill as a way to help those still struggling with snowballing fines and fees and resulting license suspensions.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to give Californians who are struggling to make ends meet a chance to keep their driver’s licenses, keep their jobs and pay off traffic ticket fines,” Hertzberg said in a press release announcing the bill. “We have to quit punishing people simply for being poor, and unfortunately, that’s what our justice system often does with high fines and fees for minor traffic offenses.”
California joins a handful of other states that are considering revamping their policies around driver’s license suspension. Under the Obama Administration, the Justice Department warned states that some of those policies violate the 14th amendment.
In March 2016, the Justice Department sent a letter to state and local courts about “increased attention on the illegal enforcement of fines and fees in certain jurisdictions around the country.” The letter also warned that that automatic suspension of driving privileges without due process was unconstitutional. Before suspending a driver’s license for failure to pay, courts must offer the driver an opportunity to prove that they are unable to pay, and not simply unwilling.
In the letter, DOJ encouraged states to implement reforms to “avoid suspending driver’s licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety.”